Alex and Francis Scott Key White have been keeping it real for years. The brother-sister duo first teamed up at 5 and 3 years old, respectively, for a song called “Baby Blues.” More recently though, the two have become White Mystery, a garage-rock outfit with raw power to spare.
The band releases its second record, Blood & Venom, and will be playing two ripping shows at Pancho’s April 20 to celebrate. The A.V. Club caught up with the White siblings on the road in Detroit to talk about music, art, and who throws a better punch.
The A.V. Club: What was it like growing up for you guys? Did you always get along? Who hits harder?
Alex White: Just a little background about White Mystery first: We were born and raised on Chicago’s North Side. We’re products of the Chicago Public Schools system. I think the city has a lot to do with the fabric of who we are and where we play. We have a song on our first record called “Take A Walk” that’s about walking along the lakefront near our home.
As far as growing up, our parents are super cool. One’s creative, and one’s analytical. The two forces united created Francis and me, as well as the third White, Nick, who’s forging his own path creatively.
Francis White: We never really fought, because we spent so much time together walking around the city and exploring. It’s a companionship. Whenever we have a rivalry, it’s over in an hour or two anyway.
AVC: Alex, you started going to the Fireside Bowl when you were 13, right? How did that kind of scene influence your musical worldview?
AW: It all started on April 30 when I was 13. I’m going to be 26 at the end of the month.
I think it definitely started a trend of frequenting shows. I go to shows all the time, and that started at the Fireside. I mean, it was an all-ages venue, and as a teenager that’s one of very few places where you can go hang out and experience really cool punk music. It strengthened my love of live shows and of bands. I really wish I had a log or roster of the literally thousands of bands I’ve seen in the past 13 years, or whom we’ve played with. A lot of people I met as a teen continue to be my friends to this day.
I think that’s one thing about growing up in Chicago—that community is very important. People who are born here, whether they love it or hate it, continue to play here, and they support each other’s projects. It’s not full of fly-by-nights like New York.
AVC: Francis, did your cool older sister who went to shows help form you musically?
FW: My sister has two years on me so, when she started bringing CDs home in sixth grade, it influenced me a lot. I imagined myself as a drummer when she got Nirvana’s Nevermind, and I heard Dave Grohl on “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I’ve tried to both follow in her footsteps and forge my own identity.
AVC: Why is staying in Chicago important for you guys, if it is?
FW: I think it’s a crossroads for a lot of bands travelling across the country. It’s the Midwest, and there are good shows to host. It’s the buckle of the belt, and there are a lot of people to meet.
AW: We travel all the time. We’re going to spend two weeks in New York in May. Chicago gives you that centrality in the country, though. It’s a launching point. We’ve definitely discovered, over time, that there are these types of communities all over the country, though. Iowa City has a scene; Muscle Shoals, Alabama; Missoula, [Montana]. Chicago is not the only place that has this strong scene, and it’s important to see those types of communities.
FW: There’s a familiarity that runs throughout the rest of the country that encircles Chicago.
AVC: You guys have an art show coming up, and grew up with an artist mom. How does art affect your music, and vice versa?
AW: White Mystery is a very visually powered band. You can tell by our performances, of course, by our super-high energy, and the colorful nature of how we look. But graphics and art are a big part of the White Mystery fabric and identity. You’ll see in our records that there’s a lot of color, and we’re really into both the logo and patterns.
This art show at Johalla Project we’re doing the week after the record comes out both reflects and reinforces the imagery that’s important to our band and our music. We put out our own records, and we do all this stuff like T-shirts, merch, buttons, and that kind of thing. We’ve made hundreds or thousands of items, and I consider it to be art, but kind of ready-made art for the masses. This show is an opportunity to reveal more of the one-of-a-kind nature of the band. We’re going to have floor-to-ceiling printed fabric panels that are 12 feet high. We have T-shirts, or unisex lingerie, as I call it now.
A lot of the graphic design, I’ve collaborated on with my mom, who’s a photographer. Her name is Diane Alexander White, and she shot the disco demolition riot of ’79. She’s got a Gay Pride Parade show opening in June. She’s a native Chicagoan, and she studied under the Bauhaus masters at UIC in the ’70s. I’ve learned a lot about honing my eye for graphic balance and legibility and stuff from her. There’s a collaboration with the photography she’s provided for all our records in the show. The photos from Miss Alex White And The Red Orchestra are hers as well.
It’s also my birthday.
AVC: Is this new record, Blood & Venom, a natural progression from the last one? What changed for you guys?
FW: The recording process changed. We had some more tracks and mics to work with, and we made the drums sound fuller.
AW: We’ve talked a lot about how the lyrics are more developed and more collaborative between Francis and me. Each song has its own vision and atmosphere, and that’s reflected in the lyrics.
We have dark songs and funny songs, though. We just taped 848 with Alison Cuddy. She was talking about how she thought like, we talk about how these are dark songs that we wrote during wintertime, but she gets the idea of this playfulness between my brother and me. We’re cracking up because on that song “Dead Inside,” it says “up to your eyes in dirt.” And on “Birthday” we sing in French, German, and Greek.
We’d also say, too, that we pumped this record out from writing to developing to recording, mixing, mastering, and self-releasing on CD and vinyl in less than a year after the last one. I think, as a team, we developed our process of picking out the jams.
AVC: I read that you made a pact to not cut your hair again back in 2007. Is that still happening?
AW: For Francis, yeah. I got a trim in July and really regret it. It’s still not the same for me, and I kind of feel weird. I decided not to cut my hair again until 2013. Someone described it like Samson and his power. I don’t even want to talk about it because it upsets me a lot.
FW: My friends told me that they like me better with long hair. I’ve chopped it off and donated it to locks of love a couple of times, but when I have a crew cut or bald head, I get different treatment compared to when I have long hair. I’m looking forward to getting split ends. I want it to get raggedy, but I want to avoid having dreadlocks.
AW: When I got my hair trimmed, we embedded the hair into buttons. We call them DNA buttons. They’re one of a kind and inspired by Victorian hair art. It’s where they’d braid this hair together and make huge still life paintings of fruit, but with hair. It’s totally freaky. So when I trimmed my hair, I saved the clippings and embedded them onto the buttons. A couple of people have them, and people who do always get these questions like, “What the hell is that?”
FW: They have hair sticking out the sides, too.
AW: Whenever we have blood to spare, we make thumbprints on paper, and [there] are a few one of a kind buttons out there of that, too.
AVC: Do you guys have goals for the band, like Hollywood Bowl by 2013, or do you just kind of go with the flow?
AW: Of course we go with the ebb and the flow, but this year, we had a goal of getting our second record out, and we accomplished that. Another goal is to get on Conan, our fellow redhead, in the near future. Another is to get out of the country. We have offers to play around the world and we definitely want to follow through with that in 2011.
FW: We were talking about doubling our profits and record sales.
FW: Quintupling. I want to get huge. I want to get lots of girls thinking I’m sexy. I want to be a better drummer. I want to get fit. I’m seeking power, I guess.
AW: That’s the yin and the yang of the band right there.